Monthly Archives: October 2011

Nairn Jazz Festival 2004

I was too busy throwing up round the clock (I was pregnant with twins) to make the 2003 Nairn Jazz Festival but I managed to get to the 2004 event – for one day only.. As it turned out, however, heavy rain caused a landslip on the train line between Inverness and Glasgow and I ended up having to spend an extra night away from the babies…

This write-up was first published in the September 2004 issue of Jazz Review 

It takes some jazz festivals a week to notch up the quantity of quality music on offer in a 24-hour period at the Nairn event. In the space of just one day, slap bang in the middle of this most laid-back of festivals, it was possible to hear clarinettist Bobby Gordon three times, and many of the other stars – including Bob Wilber, James Chirillo, Rossano Sportiello and John Sheridan – twice apiece. Old band-mates were reunited, and new alliances were formed. And this year, the programme featured a significant injection of new names (drummer Herlin Riley’s Swing Quartet went down a storm with aficionados of a more contemporary persuasion) alongside long-established favourites.

One Nairn newcomer whom it was impossible to avoid was the veteran American violinist Johnny Frigo. It may not have been his fault, but by the time he had gatecrashed his second concert (delaying the start, much to the inevitably vocal chagrin of Kenny Davern who was expecting to kick-off at the advertised time), Frigo was beginning to outstay his welcome. His impressive age (he’s 87) and impish sense of fun may allow him to get away with a great deal (a degree of arrogance and a penchant for reading his own poetry onstage to name but two examples), but his invitation for requests was dangerous, since what most of the audience wanted to hear was the band they had bought tickets for – Summit Reunion.

This musical meeting of Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber – the twin titans of the clarinet (plus, in Wilber’s case, the soprano sax) – turned out to be well worth the wait. It’s two years since their last Nairn summit, and clearly the time apart has had only a positive effect on their collaborations. Their concert in the excellent, Davern-pleasing,acoustics of the Newton Hotel’s conference room was – by their own reckoning – their best ever. What shone through was the fact that they were revelling not only in each other’s company, but also in the company of a terrific band – the Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello (whose exquisitely tasteful playing won him many fans), guitarist James Chirillo, bass player Andrew Cleyndert and drummer Tony De Nicola.

This was classic Soprano Summit: Davern and Wilber jostle and joust with the melody, bouncing it to and fro before one of them throws down the gauntlet with his solo; then, all solos taken, the pair reunite for an invariably exhilarating  climax, packed with the kind of harmonies that cause spines to tingle. This time out, the tunes ranged from such old SS favourites as Some of These Days to numbers – Comes Love, for one – which aren’t associated with this band. As ever, the leaders seemed energised by each other’s playing, and the results were utterly thrilling.

Less thrilling, but extremely satisfying nevertheless, was the reunion of most of the group featured on the recent Arbors CD Yearnings. Clarinettist Bobby Gordon, making his Nairn debut this year, initially appeared ill at ease next to the majestic-sounding Bob Wilber on the bandstand and, until the volume of his microphone was bumped up, he didn’t make much of a musical impression. By half-time, however, he had hit his stride, playing with ever greater assurance, and revealing – even more than he had in a far from relaxed duo concert with James Chirillo the previous day – a breathy, Pee Wee Russell-informed style which was a joy on his featured number If You Were Mine. Towards the end of the set, he felt sufficiently comfortable to sing –  a charmingly unaffected, characterful rendition of Sweet Lorraine which was reminiscent of Doc Cheatham’s similarly gentle vocal version.

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Newsflash!

This blog has been singled out as one of the 60 best music blogs  .. in the world, by ClickitTicket, the independent American ticket agency. I’m chuffed to bits to have been considered.

If you want to read all about it, click on the “Jazz and Funk” category when you open this link: http://tinyurl.com/6yb3o64

 

 

 

 

 

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Until the Sun Comes Out

A wee treat for a wet Wednesday afternoon: the magnificent Scott Hamilton playing a gorgeous Harold Arlen ballad (which is associated, these days,with his fellow tenor man Bobby Wellins), with John Pearce (piano), Dave Green (bass) and Steve Brown (drums).  It’s only taken me two months to work out how to rotate the image, as I recorded it sideways.. D’oh!

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Liane Carroll @ The Weir

Well, I may have been the DD (not – surprisingly, given how often she has crept up in jazz conversations recently – Doris Day, but the designated driver), but that didn’t stop me from having a great night at a new out-of-town venue for jazz in the west of Scotland.

The Weir, in Bridge of Weir outside Glasgow, looks like your average Scottish main street pub from the outside, but inside, the bistro part of the property looks like the sort of nightclub Doris, Rock and co frequented in those classic 1950s movies: all grey drapes, low lights and chic furnishings. But then, it is (once a month anyway) a jazz supper club..

My friend Jill and I made the journey out of town partly to check out this new venue, and support its laudible aim of bringing national as well as local jazz names to perform for a small audience (whose four-course dinner and a cocktail are included in the £25 ticket price), and largely because the star du jour was Liane Carroll, the ebullient English singer-pianist who had travelled up from the south coast to launch this new series.

And she certainly launched it in memorable style, serving up two sets that were characterised by her energy, passion and self-deprecating humour. To have had her perform as anything other than a solo act would have been considerably less effective  – though the nook in which her mini upright piano was positioned did bear an unfortunate resemblance to a crematorium (curtains behind her, stained glass on two sides, big stands of funereal flowers) ..  The presence of a couple of other musicians might have been better visually than the sight of Carroll looking like the organist at the crem, but it would surely have detracted a little from her performance and its spontaneity and intensity.

Any local who hadn’t known there was a soulful singer in town would have known it within seconds of Carroll casting off on a raucous, bluesy take on Cole Porter’s Love For Sale. And the football showing in the pub through the wall didn’t stand a chance against her dynamic and hard-swinging Let There Be Love.

Carroll may have pinched some of the great Julie London’s repertoire with No Moon At All and the lovely Gordon Jenkins’s ballad Goodbye but there is absolutely no similarity between the hushed, breathy, intimate London vocals and Carroll’s gutsy, no-holds-barred, no emotional stone unturned style of singing. Her Mad About the Boy had my companion in tears, while her interpretations of Tom Waits’s Take Me Home and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s If I Loved You threatened to have the same effect on me.

The evening ended with a good old singalong on a number that is impossible to take seriously since Rupert Everett’s now-iconic version in My Best Friend’s Wedding: I Say a Little Prayer for You. Coached by Carroll in our “X Factor gestures”, we were sent out into the night – and the drive home – on a high..

* The next jazz supper features The Marco Cafolla Trio with Stewart Forbes on October 30. For tickets, call 01505 228003 or email theweirsupperclub@musician.org

Here’s a video shot at Sunday’s concert – the lighting wasn’t very conducive to filming!

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Something About Lee

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Lee Wiley since the time I wrote most of this article, back in 1994. Around then, I’d fallen in love with her songbook albums – notably the Rodgers & Hart one, and such later recordings as Oh! Look at Me Now and R & H’s My Romance – surely the definitive version?

Whenever I revisit her recordings, I find new delights and have come to realise that not only was she one of the best interpreters of a lyric, but she was also a singer who expressed a distinctly female point of view through her song choices and her delivery of them – just listen to such songs as Any Time, Any Day, Anywhere (which she co-wrote), If I Love Again, A Woman’s Intuition, Who Can I Turn To Now and Can’t Get Out of This Mood. I’ll bet her recordings of these songs speak more to us women than they do to men.. 

Even among jazz fans, the name Lee Wiley is rarely heard. One of the most influential singers of her time, she remains –  to many people – little more than a name. Anyone who has heard her recordings, however, is unlikely to forget them: her voice is one which raises the spirits and exudes sheer class.  She could count among her admirers the likes of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Marlene Dietrich;  the singers she influenced include Peggy Lee, and she regularly inspired critics to ecstatic, and near poetic, musings on her interpretations of the popular songs of the day.

A TV drama starring Piper Laurie and Claude Rains (and directed by Sam Peckinpah) based loosely on her life was made in 1963. It was entitled Something About Lee Wiley – a title which hints at the elusive quality of the Wiley voice.

You could describe it – as others have – as warm, sensual, fragile, husky, pure
and unpretentious. But there’s still something else; something that’s difficult to pin down. It could be the way she had of implying a note amid her breathiness, or of leaving a wisp of a note hanging in the air, lingering in the mind of her listener. Whatever it was she did, it was unique – and it enhanced every tune she caressed with her velvety vocals.

Lee Wiley was born on October 9, 1908 or 1910 (she claimed at one point that 1915 was the year of her birth) in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma – a town she described with characteristic irony as “about as small as a town can get”. Legend has it that she was of Cherokee Indian, Scottish and English ancestry, and musicians later nicknamed her Pocahontas or The Indian Princess. She certainly comes across as having been as sophisticated and elegant in appearance as her tasteful vocal style and regal nickname suggest.

Wiley was listening to the blues from an early age, and longed to be a singer. “I had a boyfriend who would skip school with me and we would go over to the local store and play records .. they called them ‘race records’ and they only sold them in a certain part of town -the coloured part,” she told one interviewer. Her favourite black singer was Ethel Waters. “I loved to hear her and I adapted her style and softened it to make it more ladylike.”

In her mid teens, Wiley left Oklahoma to sing with Leo Reisman’s band in New York. Working with him and the popular Paul Whiteman outfit on radio, she quickly graduated to her own show – The Pond’s Cold Cream Hour Starring Lee Wiley. Along the way, she suffered a couple of setbacks: suspected tuberculosis, which forced her to take a year off work, and later temporary blindness and disfigurement, the result of a fall from a horse – just as she was about to do a screen test in Hollywood.

When Wiley emerged from that catastrophe, she did so as a fledgling jazz singer. Whereas previously she had been singing with comercial bands for the mass audience of radio, it was the jazz fraternity which now took her under its wing, and provided the perfect musical settings for her intimate and swinging vocal style.

In 1939, backed by the likes of Max Kaminsky (trumpet), Fats Waller (piano and organ) and Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Wiley recorded what has become a classic: a collection of George and Ira Gershwin  numbers – many of them (though it’s hard to believe now) rescued from obscurity. Not only did Wiley set a trend by recording the first songbook album, she also scored a winner by transforming songs which were familiar only as showtunes into sensitive and dramatic jazz standards.

The album was recorded for Liberty, a high-class music shop with an elite clientele, and they (not to mention the messrs Gershwin) were so delighted with it that it was quickly succeeded by a Cole Porter equivalent. Porter was so taken with it that he was prompted to write: “I can’t tell you how much I like the way she sings these songs. The combination of voice and musical accompaniment is excellent. Please give my congratulations to Lee Wiley.”

Songbook albums of Rodgers & Hart and Harold Arlen followed soon afterwards, and – with her respect for the verse and the meaning of the lyrics – hers have become the definitive versions of many of the songs she recorded.  So much so that few have touched such gems as A Ship Without a Sail or Here In My Arms since.

Wiley was, as her friends have noted, a complex person. One defining characteristic, evident in her music, is her honesty and sense of conviction. She was also a free spirit, and seems to have been able to blend into any social circle.

Her friend Larry Carr said: “She loved the free-wheeling, barrel-house atmosphere of jazz clubs and musicians but there was also another, equally strong, side of her that appreciated the well-bred, genteel and chic side of society”. Just as Katharine Hepburn once said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that he lent her class and she lent him sex appeal, the same applies to Wiley and jazz. She brought sophistication to the music, and it brought out her sexy side. It was the perfect relationship.

From 1943 until 1946, Wiley was married to the pianist Jess Stacy, and sang with his short-lived big band and Eddie Condon’s group. By the late 1940s, she was working on the nightclub circuit and beginning her slide into obscurity. However, her sumptuous 1950 Columbia album, A Night in Manhattan, won acclaim and led to more recordings in the mid-1950s – including another two classics, the sublime West of the Moon (with Ralph Burns arrangements) and A Touch of the Blues (with Billy Butterfield and His Orchestra, and arrangements by Bill Finegan and Al Cohn). Thereafter, she only made the occasional appearance on television and radio.

The TV film Something About Lee Wiley caused a resurgence of interest in her music but she didn’t record again until 1971. The superb Back Home Again – which teamed her with Dick Hyman –  proved to be her last album. She died in December 1975 after a long battle against cancer.

The tragedy of Lee Wiley is that her legacy of recordings is pretty slight, and there is no film footage of her singing. She was, by all accounts, too happy-go-lucky to be ambitious and too dismissive of commercial work – and this could be why, during her lifetime at least, she wasn’t as well appreciated as she should have been. Except by those who heard her: at her last public appearance, at the Carnegie Hall, as part of the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival, audiences went wild for her – an upbeat note on which to end her career.

Here are some of my favourite Lee Wiley recordings that are available on YouTube:

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Overview

Published in the Nairn Telegraph, August 14, 2002

Thank God for the Nairn International Jazz Festival. Thanks to it, I will have enough musical memories to sustain me through the next 12 months until my next trip north to jazz heaven. The festival, which ended on Sunday, provided more moments of sheer pleasure in one week than Scottish fans of swinging chamber jazz can expect to enjoy in a whole year’s worth of concerts elsewhere in the country.

This year’s event summed up everything that makes Nairn special. There was the enthusiasm of the musicians who appreciated the excellent acoustics (if not the unbearable temperature earlier in the week) of the Universal Hall in Findhorn, the laidback feel of the Newton Hotel’s Conference Centre, and, especially, the warmth and attentiveness of the audiences. Among the musicians who were enjoying themselves so much that they played well beyond their bedtimes were veteran clarinettist and saxophonist Bob Wilber, pianist Ray Bryant and cornet legend Ruby Braff.

Then there were the last-minute concerts staged by festival organiser Ken Ramage: two guitar recitals by top American players in a Forres coffee shop and the Saturday night finale, pulled together in a day (following the cancellation by headline act Steve Tyrell), and still managing to attract a more than respectably sized audience.

Of course what matters most is the music, and Nairn served up more treats than even the most optimistic festival-goer could expect, and all in a refreshingly laid-back manner which contrasts with the concert hall formality favoured by so many other jazz festivals these days. Ken Ramage is a talented programmer with a healthy intuition about which musicians will work well together, and he knows that the happier the musicians are, the better the music is likely to be. Which is why, unlike other festival organisers, he often brings over whole bands or arranges for the preferred rhythm sections of certain top soloists to come up north, rather than taking the easy option of simply putting the star turn on with a Scottish trio.

The festival is very much a reflection of Ramage’s personal taste, but it’s also proof that focusing on one area of jazz – the so-called “mainstream” side of things – doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t have diversity and broad appeal. Nairn’s very strength is that it doesn’t try to be all things to all jazz fans. Because of this, it has a strong identity and has established a reputation among musicians all over the world as one of the most desirable festivals to visit. Add to that the warm hospitality, the scenery and, of course, the tropical temperatures (well, Monday and Tuesday’s anyway), and, well, roll on next year…

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Review: Carol Kidd & Nigel Clark

Carol Kidd & Nigel Clark, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Monday October 3 *****

There’s something about the voice and guitar combination that’s special – and when it’s Carol Kidd’s voice and Nigel Clark’s guitar, the effect can be magical. That was certainly the case on Monday night when they paid a return visit to a venue which has already had the rare pleasure of hearing this duo play a whole concert.

It turned out to be a great evening – and the Brunton is a great place to hear this classy double-act. Although the auditorium was packed, the atmospheric lighting and clear views from all the seats (which look down on the stage) created an intimate mood. And, since the seating was arranged in a semi-circle around the stage, Kidd was able to draw everyone in and really connect with the full-house audience.

Clearly more at home in this setting than she was at her Edinburgh Jazz Festival gig earlier this year (in the less personal Hub venue), Kidd confined her patter to vivid tales of her childhood holidays down the road – and had the audience in fits of laughter. They were already on-side, though, having been won over by such gems as the raunchy blues You Don’t Know Me and the gorgeous ballads There Goes My Heart, Moon River and I Got Lost in His Arms, which underlined not only Kidd’s ability to invest every word with emotion but also the sensitivity of Clark’s accompaniment and responses.

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